Tag Archives: Heath Aster

Draper Twin Lake Park: The Restless Transitions of Mid-Autumn

A trembling aspen which leafed out in spring, and shed leaves in autumn,  despite having fallen across the Draper marsh in a storm at the end of last winter

October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.

Photos and Text by Cam Mannino

As the month moves on,  a sharpness edges the morning air and shadows slide across the landscape more quickly in the late afternoon. The birds are agitated  – snatching up as much seed as possible, drilling holes for snug winter hideaways, or pausing for an overnight respite before catching a north wind going south.

Change is in the air.  Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.

Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly

One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto  the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!

The Common Buckeye is a lovely little butterfly that I see most often during its migration to southern climes.

In early October, afternoons were still occasionally above 50°, warm enough for the European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) to gather more winter stores. The nectar collected by these bees will be turned into honey for the hive to feed on in the winter. Having large stores of nourishment in the hive is crucial if honey bees are to survive the winter months, so this one paid no attention to me as it probed for some last sips of nectar.

A Honey Bee gathering nectar from an aster to feed the hive during the cold winter months.

The sturdy Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) emerges as the summer fades and blooms heartily in the cooler temperatures. So any warm afternoon in fall, this lovely native wildflower offers itself to foraging bees in the hope of being pollinated quickly so that seeds will be ready before the snow falls.

Heath Asters make their own white snowstorm, often blooming right up until snow falls.

Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba) look a lot like their relative, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta). But Brown-eyeds tend to grow multiple stems from a single root and usually grow taller than the Black-eyed variety. I see them only in late summer or fall, whereas Black-eyeds last from June to September. Nice to have some fresh yellow wildflowers just as cool weather sets in!

Brown-eyed Susans are short-lived perennials that grow on mulitple stems.

A lone, fading Black-eyed Susan hid a tiny beetle among its petals and attracted a greenish-gray caterpillar busily nibbling off the tiny yellow flowers poking from the wildflower’s composite seed head. After pouring over the guide Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, my best guess is that it’s the caterpillar of the Common Pug Moth (Eupithecia vulgata) whose larva has chevrons along its spine and which feeds on these flowers, among many other plants. If I’m right about the caterpillar (and remember, I’m just guessing!), the Pug Moth is a  modest gray- brown with a small dark spot on both its fore- and hindwings.

An insect caterpillar and a small beetle  as well as various windflower fibers have landed on a fading Black-eyed Susan.

In the grass, we found a Wooly Bear Caterpillar, the larva  of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). If you look carefully below, you can almost discern its projecting mandibles (jaws) about to tear off the edge of a clover leaf. (Sorry for the blur. It was chewing rather vigorously!) The Farmer’s Almanac these days does a fine job of explaining the “folklore” behind the idea that the width of the color bands predict the severity of winter. A serious scientific study has never been done; it would require too many caterpillars over too many years. According to Wikipedia, however, Wooly Bears vary a lot in their color banding and the bands also tend to widen with each molt – so it’s not likely to be an ace weatherman.

A Wooly Bear caterpillar munching on clover.

In the marsh within the eastern section of the park, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) found a sunny spot on the mud behind the dying leaf of a Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). It closed its eyes, turned its head skyward and basked. Shortly it will sink to the muddy bottom and won’t emerge until spring. During winter, it actually stops breathing, but its slowed metabolism means it can survive on the oxygen that passes through its skin from the surrounding water. Hibernation is miraculous, isn’t it?

A Midland Painted Turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thin sunlight of early autumn.

One birding morning on the western side of the park, Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide,  introduced us to a colorful shrub off one side of Draper’s fishing dock.  It turned out to be Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)! It’s a relative of the harmless and quite beautiful Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), and a sibling to Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). I’d never come across this bush with its gray bark and white berries, but the familiar red leaves of other sumacs. Luckily it grows within or at the edge of bogs, fens, marshes and other very wet places where my hiking shoes don’t often carry me. Look but don’t touch and don’t inhale its smoke are the watchwords here.  Poison Sumac is more toxic than Poison Ivy.  The Michigan Flora website has a great photo of it in bloom.

Poison Sumac looks quite glamorous in the fall with its red leaves and white berries.

A more benign plant sent a spray of red leaves across the lily pads in late September and early October. Native  Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) is not a problem like the non-native, invasive Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). This native wildflower produces purple blossoms along each stem and leaves that turn red in October. In November, its seed heads make a lovely pattern against the water of the lake. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife

The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you.  But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.

Two Goldfinches eating while riding the swaying stalks of goldenrod.
Five Goldfinches ultimately enjoyed the seeds of just one clump of Stiff Goldenrod. (The fifth bird is semi-hidden at the lower right.)

A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) sailed across the path far in front of us – just a swish of blue against the morning sky. Bluebirds restlessly move south a bit in the fall, but can often be seen here in the winter, even on icy days. I never got close enough for a shot during the birding walk, but I did see a flock at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple of weeks earlier. This pair seemed to be exploring the possibilities of a winter hole in a snag at Bear Creek.

The male bluebird pays close attention as a female checks out the possibilities of a hole in a snag.

In the distance, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rocked on a low branch at the far edge of the field and repeatedly darted down into the grass. At last, it found what was possibly the cocoon of a caterpillar and it rose back to the branch, tail pumping as always, with its prize in its beak.

An Eastern Phoebe with what appeared to be a caterpillar’s cocoon.

Farther down the tree line, pulses of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) flew down into the grass to feed and then back into the trees. It seems that the red heads and chests of the males are a bit paler in the fall. I know the depth of the hue depends on what they eat, so perhaps their favorite berries or seeds are not quite as available as the season wanes.

House Finches fluttering out of a tree in the distance at Draper Twin Lake Park

High overhead a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) bugled their way across the autumn skies. They were headed south but it may have just been one of their many practice runs before migrating to Florida.

Sandhill Cranes flying south over Draper Twin Lake Park

Over in the eastern section of the park, a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) added its “miaows” from the hedgerow one afternoon, possibly calling a mate or youngster to share some wild Summer Grapes (Vitis aestivalis). I hope it’s a nice change from their summer diet, since number the insects that they eat during the summer is diminishing with the colder weather. The catbirds will be leaving soon to winter in Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas or along the eastern seaboard.

A Gray Catbird calls to a companion from a wild grape vine.

Down near the water, I noticed a lot of twitching in the shrubbery and waited in the shade for what might appear. The first bird that emerged was a familiar year ’round bird, the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). This tiny acrobat hung upside down, then rightside up,  twisting this way and that, to snatch as much seed as possible from Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) near the lake.

A Black-capped Chickadee eating its fill of Canada Goldenrod

Small visiting migrators often show up around chickadees. Cornell Ornithology Lab provides a possible explanation. “Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.” Good to have a reliable sentinel! I’ve also read that visiting birds find food by hanging around local chickadees who presumably know the best foraging spots. That was certainly the case at Draper Lake. A migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) popped out into the open and began stripping seeds from the goldenrod just like the local chickadee. In the fall and winter, it pays to look carefully wherever chickadees are gathering.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet joined the Chickadee in devouring goldenrod seed. A leaf cast an interesting shadow on its tiny back.

As I turned away from the Kinglet, I heard a call that I knew was a woodpecker and looked up. A large black and white bird landed on a nearby tree and began to peck at a hole. Wow! It was the closest I’ve ever been to a Pileated Woodpecker. And as an added bonus, the afternoon sun lit its crest with a scarlet glow. It may have been looking for the right tree in which to make a new hole, one lower than its nesting hole, that will serve as winter shelter.

A Pileated Woodpecker seemed to be considering whether a hole in this tree could be further excavated for a winter storm hideaway.

Near the end of the path, a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) hopped about, restlessly picking up and dropping bits of this and that. Theoretically these sparrows, plentiful in the summer, can spend the winter here, but I rarely seem them after the fall. This one may have migrated here from farther north and also chosen to explore where the chickadee was foraging.

The sparrow near the lake has the typical long tail of a Song Sparrow.  If you could see its breast, there’d be a dark spot in the middle of its striping, another field mark.

I saw several other birds at Draper Twin Lake Park with the birding group in the last two months, but only through my binoculars.  A quick flash of red or yellow high in the fall leaves, a recognizable song in the distance, or a sudden chasing flight over the prairie – none of that provided a chance for a photo. However, I wanted to share these birds here so that you can appreciate how many birds can be seen at Draper Twin Lake Park in autumn. So here’s a short slideshow of some of them as seen in photos I’ve taken at other times, or in photos from the generous photographers at inaturalist.org. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Relishing Autumn’s Transformation

Native Indian Grass swaying in an October wind

The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie:   “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”

Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season.  I appreciate that reminder.

Lost Lake: A Small Park with a “Magic” All Its Own

A wonderful stump for sitting along the water beneath the trees at Lost Lake.

Lost Lake Nature Park may be small, only about 58 acres, but it’s a big resource for all kinds of wildlife – including us humans! Roughly 10,000 years ago, the glaciers sculpted this park with its rolling woodlands that now slope down to shady wetlands dotted with ferns and mushrooms. The deep Laurentian ice sheet also eventually dropped enough material to create a huge hill, one of the highest places in the township – now a magnificent sledding hill in the winter months.

The glaciers also gifted us with a large kettle lake. A huge chunk of ice broke off the ancient glacier and melted, gradually filling its hole with water as the glacier retreated, leaving rocks, soil and gravel around the lakeshore. Anglers – both human and avian – now pull fish from the lake and in the fall, a variety of birds seem to find it an ideal place to rest, socialize and feed before heading for points south.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So please join me on the dock as birds call and forage on the far shore or mud flats. Wander with me up and down hills in the woodland dimness, where a dragonfly devours its kin (!), green pools glow in the distance and a motley collection of colorful mushrooms appear and disappear within the bed of dark, moist leaves left from the summer evaporation of a vernal pool. It really is a “magical” little place!

 

The Pond Provides R&R Before the Big Push South

Part of a family of Canada Geese call, feed and relax at Lost Lake

Almost any time from spring to fall, the honking of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) greets me as I step from my car at Lost Lake Nature Park. What appeared to be a family of about eight glided peacefully around the lake on a cool October morning. A noisy male declared himself to all comers, sounding his deep “honk” which wards off intruders but is also used right before takeoff. The female will often make a higher “hink” call in response, especially when in flight. This group eventually took off toward the east after a relaxing hour or so cruising the pond.

Canada Geese after taking off from Lost Lake

Far across the pond, a tall white figure lifted its knobby, backward knees as it stalked along in the mud. A Great Egret (Ardea alba) stuffed itself on creatures too far away for me to see; frogs, small fish, dragonflies, and grasshoppers all contribute to an Egret’s diet.

The Great Egret had a wildly successful afternoon foraging along the north edge of Lost Lake.

For a while, the egret just stared up into the sky, something I’ve never seen an egret do before. Maybe it was just being extra cautious, though I saw and heard nothing threatening. Or maybe it was just curious?

The Great Egret studying the sky for some unknown reason.

Most of the other birds at Lost Lake camouflage almost perfectly again the background of the browning vegetation on the mud flats. It pays to scan the surface with a pair of binoculars until I see movement. My camera and I could just barely discern three Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) slipping through the slim waterways that thread  through the low-growing aquatic plants that blanket parts of the lake.

Wood Ducks are tough to see  in the open water between the aquatic plants. The male is in the center; left is most likely the female and the one bringing up the rear may be a juvenile.

On the same busy day at the lake, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stepped out of the reeds on the far side. It was a wary creature, stalking along the edge to do a little hunting, but repeatedly slipping back into the tall plants to hide. Finally I caught it in the open – but just for a moment! It didn’t seem as lucky or perhaps as skillful as the Egret in finding food. Young Blue Herons are on their own two or three weeks after leaving the nest, so I wondered whether this was a slightly nervous juvenile or simply a wary adult.

A Great Blue Heron slipping into and out of plants along the north edge of the lake

A young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) appeared in my binoculars as I swept my gaze across the lake’s mottled surface.  Since the heron stood almost completely still, I would never have spotted it without them. Its striped neck is the most obvious sign that this one is a youngster. Shortly,  this solitary bird will head out on it own to spend the winter in Florida, along the Gulf Coast, or in the Bahamas. How young birds who often travel alone know where to spend the winter remains a mystery. According to the website of the University of Colorado at Boulder, recent studies indicate that migrations destinations may be genetically determined through years of evolution.

A young Green Heron probed the mud flats for fish, snails, amphibians, whatever he could find before migrating to Florida, Cuba or the Bahamas.

The high, keening cry of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferussounded over the lake as a trio of them flew across the pond, wings akimbo at a sharp angle. They too stayed at the north edge of the lake, poking along the muddy shore for a very long time. My binoculars could reach them, but they were too small for my camera to see clearly. So I sat down on the deck and waited. Finally, the three flew in my direction and settled on a grassy flat. They too were nicely camouflaged by the browning foliage in the background, especially the bird on the left!

Three killdeer finally took pity on me and landed close enough to the fishing platform to snap what might be a family portrait.

As I left the floating dock, I noticed a sparkling patch on the surface of the water. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a hatch of Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae) swirling across the surface with sun on their rounded backs.

A swarm of Whirligig beetles, some sparkling in the sunlight

These little creatures seek protection in groups, swimming frantically in circles when agitated. Their divided eyes are believed to allow them to see both above and below the water’s surface. Nonetheless, periodically a fish dashed to the surface and a few disappeared, leaving a gap in the swarm,  as you can see in the 10 second video below.

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A closeup shot (below) shows these rotund insects more clearly. You can see how each little beetle makes its own tiny ripples as it energetically rows over the surface with its hind and middle legs. The front legs are used to grab other insects, including those unlucky enough to fall in their midst!

Whirligig Beetles rowing around in a swarm on Lost Lake.

At the water’s edge, a small American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeianus) sat quietly in the shadows, its face turned to the sunlight. I mistook it at first for a Green Frog (Rana clamitans), but they have rigid folds down either side of their back. This little bullfrog had a fold that curled around its tympanum, the eardrum-like circle on the side of a frog’s head. Also its eyes sit up high on its head; Green Frogs’ eyes are lower with little noticeable bulge. I wondered if this small frog stared so steadily because it was trying to see the shadow of an insect flying by, silhouetted against the light. I wish just once I’d get to see that long tongue flash out and snag one!

Several bullfrogs jumped into the water as I came off the dock, but this little one kept concentrating on looking for an insect – or perhaps just enjoying the sun on a cool day.

On one of my trips to Lost Lake, I came across a mother and son team fishing on the deck. The young man, Zach Adams, had just pulled in a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) – and I believe, on his first cast! His mom, Cheryl, took a photo before her son released it back into the water. I’m happy that she kindly shared her photo with me, so I could show you one of the denizens that live below the surface of Lost Lake. This bass is what researchers call an “apex predator,” which means that its presence maintains the balance of species within the lake.

Zach Adams with the Largemouth Bass he caught at Lost Lake

Then, Into the Steeply Sloping Woods

The high point of the woods at Lost Lake slopes down to a dry vernal pool at its foot

The path that leads to the woods was filled with dappled light one October afternoon. A Bumblebee (genus Bombus) slipped its long tongue into the last few flowers ringing a Bee Balm blossom (Monarda fistulosa) that miraculously still survived in October. You can see the stamens protruding from the tubular upper lip of each flower, while the three lower lips offer what the Illinois Wildflowers website describes as “landing pads for visiting insects.” This bumblebee has made the most of the landing pad, I’d say!

A Bumblebee searched industriously for any nectar left on an aging Bee Balm blossom.

Where the sunlight found its way through the leaves, another Bumblebee  nuzzled a Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) looking for whatever bits of pollen were still available before this late season goldenrod turned brown.

A Bumblebee exploring the possibilities of one of the late and lovely Showy Goldenrods.

I came across a cloud of spreadwing damselflies fluttering among some small trees in the first shadowy light of the woods. I’d never seen so many at one time! I believe they were Emerald Spreadwings (Lestes dryas) because of their green sheen and slightly stockier appearance than most damselflies. But I never got a definitive identification.

A whole group of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies settled on the plants and trees just before I entered the woods.

When I spotted a female Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) in their midst, I snapped a quick photo. I didn’t realize until I saw it in my computer that it was consuming one of the spreadwings! Yikes. No honor among Odonata evidently; they are members of the same order! Well, an insect’s gotta do what an insect’s gotta do, I guess.

I believe this male Autumn Dragonfly is holding a half-eaten spreadwing damselfly!

A Beautiful and Strange Collection of Mushrooms

Violet Polypore Mushrooms, Stereum and a Hickory Tussock Moth all share a log in Lost Lake Nature Park.

The fallen log picture above hosted undoubtedly the most beautiful assemblage of mushrooms I’ve ever come across on my hikes. Violet Polypore Mushrooms (Trichaptum biforme) stepped delicately down the side of this log while orange shelf/leaf fungi (genus Stereum) formed ruffles across the surface. Down at the bottom edge, a white Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae) paused to either nibble a bit – or just enjoy the artistry along with me. This tableau captured me so completely that I just sat down on a nearby log to appreciate it for several minutes.

I love entering the half-light of the forest at Lost Lake Nature Park. The topography is so dramatic! The back side of the sledding hill, covered in trees, slopes away to what was a vernal pool last spring. Now I can walk out on the spongy black soil at the foot of the slope and look for mushrooms. The moisture and the bed of rotting leaves is ideal territory for them.

I’m a complete novice at mushrooms, so I want to acknowledge and thank the knowledgeable fungi fans on two Facebook pages that helped me identify some of these: Mushroom Identification and Michigan Mushroom Hunters. I assume that the members are enthusiasts, not necessarily mycologists, so please don’t take their identifications as scientific proof – just much better and more educated guesses than mine! [Important Note:  I enjoy mushrooms for their place in the wildlife food chain and their beauty in natural habitats. Please don’t pick them in our parks and don’t eat any wild mushroom unless a qualified individual tells you they’re safe. Lots of our mushrooms are toxic in various ways, so beware!]

In the stippled light of the sloping forest, Russula mushrooms(genus Russula) thrust their caps above the leaf litter. Russulas are “ectomychorrizal” which means they contribute to the “wood wide web.” They form the spore-bearing, visible part of a huge, unseen network of fungi beneath the soil that allow trees to communicate and feed one another and that in return can feed off sugars in the tree roots by tapping into them. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.

Having attended a great mushroom event at Lost Lake Nature Park in 2018, I recognized this little mushroom as a Pigskin Poisonous Puffball (Scleroderma citrinum). What gives away the toxicity of this little puffball is that if you cut it open, it’s solid black inside!

The Pigskin Poisonous Puffball is a handsome mushroom with a great name – but don’t eat one!

Some mushrooms, of course, grow on dead wood, rather than emerging from the ground. I found two protruding in a somewhat spooky fashion from a snag (standing dead tree) in the moist soil of the former vernal pool. This one is in the genus Pholiota. It is the spore-bearer for unseen fungal threads called hyphae inside the wood that, according to Wikipedia, help break down decaying wood. In other words, like all fungi, they are recyclers!

A Pholiota mushroom whose role is to break down decaying wood into nutrients it can use.

Another recycler poked out of a nearby snag, though it looked like its job was nearly over. A Facebook mushroom enthusiast named Greg identified it as being in the genus Gymnopilus which is in the same family (Strophariaceae) as the Pholiota mushroom above. This one has a “veil,” a partial ring on the stem that mycologists think may help protect the gills under the cap where the reproductive spores are released.

This aging mushroom has what mycologists call a “veil,” a partial ring of material around the stem meant to protect the gills under the cap where the spores are released.

In the same area, a beautiful “foliose” or Leaf Lichen draped like lace over a dead branch. A lichen is a strange life form that is not a moss or any other plant.  According to Wikipedia, it “arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship.”  Some live on wood like mushrooms,  but they don’t draw nutrients from it.  They don’t have roots but pull water and nutrients from the air and dust.  Their relationship with one of their partners, like algae, allows them to photosynthesize.  These ancient organisms  can look like leafy plants, drooping moss or powder on the surface of a rock.  Have a look at its varied forms on the Wikipedia page.  Lichens are so common in nature and yet live and grow (verrrry slowly!) in such an alien way.  They intrigue me! Here’s the big, beautiful one I saw at Lost Lake.

A Leaf/foliose Lichen. Lichens cover 6% of the earth’s surface and are not plants!

And here’s a sight that just delighted me for no particular reason.  But look at the cool knotholes on this downed sassafras log, like open mouths silently singing!

I just got a kick out of the three open mouths of these knotholes on a fallen tree.

High on the Hillside, Autumn Wildflowers

Sassafras trees seem to take on fall colors much earlier than other trees in the forest.

We often think of  summer when we think about wildflowers. But cool weather is the perfect bloom time for many plants. Some of the ones at Lost Lake Nature Park thrive between patches of light on the high slope of the forest; some are happiest down by the lake. So here’s a small assortment of plants that love fall as much as I do!

Lost Lake Takes Me Back to the “Magic Places” of My Childhood

A cool green pond with hills sloping up behind to a forest clearing

When I was a child, nothing delighted me more than finding what I felt were “magic places.” Usually these spots were hidden ponds, small clearings in a woodland or sudden openings between trees that gave me a new perspective on a familiar spot.  Lost Lake brought back that childhood sense of “magic” for me on my final walk this fall.

Along Turtle Creek Lane on the west side of the park, I came across the oval pond in the photo above. The woods rise steeply at the back, as if throwing a protective arm across it. I found some park property across the lane that I hadn’t explored before. It  featured a small clearing in the woods and an unexpected view into a grand marsh that is on private land .

A view from park property into a huge marsh on private land to the west of the park.

So for me, Lost Lake Nature Park has many charms: a lake bustling with birds on a crisp fall day, a trail lined with damselflies and their treacherous kin, a shady spot that lets me explore, – dry shod –  the moist bottom of a vanished vernal pool. These spots encourage me to take my time, look around, and feel the “magic” I sensed as a child. That feeling of mystery and possibility feeds my desire to save what we can as the climate struggles to adapt to the changes humans have caused. I want to be sure that the children of tomorrow can wander into untamed nature and find the magic that’s still so available to you and I.

Charles Ilsley Park: Hardy Companions, Tracking the Unseen and the Ghosts of Flowers Past

Charles Ilsley Park’s Northern Prairie, as seen from the spring-fed pond in the center of the park.

I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the  brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of  birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.

Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?

Stalks of Indian Grass forming a scrim as I look across the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!

The two-toned bill, breast spot, eye-line and chestnut cap are the Tree Sparrow’s field marks.

Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact  with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.

Part of a large flock, of Tree Sparrows feeding in the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.

The bent stalk  of a Black-eyed Susan near the ground makes it easier for the  Tree sparrows to get at the seed.

Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.

A male Eastern Bluebird paused from preening for just a few seconds while sitting in the brush near the tree line.

The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit”  call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.

The female bluebird gave a little signal call to her preening mate as I approached.

At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank”  call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.)  It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.

A White-breasted Nuthatch probed the bark on a dead limb for hidden insects or their eggs.

Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…

Some pretty striking tracks greeted me in the center field of the park.

As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks.  I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.

I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do.  They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.

Coyote tracks across the western prairie

Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.

A coyote print in iced-over snow.

I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.

The entrance to the farthest west section of Charles Ilsley Park with its rolling land and woods.

This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.

The coyotes prints entering the western section of the park.

After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.

The coyote heads off into the woods in the western part of Charles Ilsley Park.

It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie.  The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another.  I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.

The coyote’s tracks flowed over the slopes.

At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.

A flat area under the bushes and vines on the right looked like it could be a place where the coyote spent the night out of the wind.

Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.

A trackless pond beyond the one where the coyote’s tracks ended

I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.

The very tall, very straight trunk and furrowed bark of a Tulip-tree

Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.

The dried blossoms of a Tulip-tree which always blooms on the highest branches. 

Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.

Red buds high on a Silver Maple will swell and offer up one of the first bright colors of spring.

As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters.  The tracks around it were hard to read .  I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks  above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times.  Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene.  Just a guess.

A heavily tracked spot on the western prairie trail

One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.

A place where a squirrel may have dug up a nut or seed – or perhaps a coyote found a mouse before bedtime?

The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.

Coyote tracks running through the furrows of the private field on the west side of the park.

If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others.  Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie.  It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.

Mouse tracks that look like stitching disappearing into a hole in the snow.

On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought  a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface.  Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water  or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.

Tracks left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had also trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.)

The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring

I’ve begun  learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers.  Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?

Yellow Coneflower and Canada Wild Rye in late fall.

Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.

Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.

For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much.  I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.

I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.

I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden.  They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters  is represented in the winter photo below  because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling.  (Use pause button for captions.)

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Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.

Well, that’s a start.  I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue  (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!

A young Field Sparrow on Foxglove Beardtongue in Charles Ilsley Park’s Eastern Prairie.

See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…

Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk

It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning.  There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.